But if you're not in the mood for a long read, I suggest you skip this!
No, I hadn’t been to church that Sunday, nor the previous Sunday. Nor did I intend to go the next week. I felt sheepish in explaining to my friends and family where I’d been or what I’d been thinking. In truth, I wasn’t entirely sure myself. After decades of unwavering allegiance to my evangelical church, I had veered from the trusted path, and all I could point to was a weird exhaustion, a bone-weariness that had infused my soul.
I was not questioning God or my conservative, biblical convictions. I was proud of my church’s involvement in the community and the many godly believers who worshipped there. I loved and trusted my pastor, his knowledge of the Bible, his leadership and his teachings. And, be assured, I was not burned-out in the typical sense of having overextended myself in service. How was it, then, that I found myself dreading the prospect of attending the Sunday services? Exactly what elements of standard evangelical fare so enervated me?
To begin with, we evangelicals are very social in our worship; we fellowship with each other. Friendly hellos before the service, coffee and donuts after, kiosks advertising Bible studies and opportunities for service, all work to create a warm and friendly ambiance. And yet, on a Sunday morning this persistent extroversion can turn my focus from worship to conversation.
For many, the music of the evangelical service effects the transition from the chit chat and the workaday world to one of worship. Sadly, I live in a state of musical deficiency that makes popular Christian music difficult for me to appreciate, let alone sing. On a good week, I spend the worship portion of the service scolding myself into disciplining my mind to offer up the words of the song in prayer and praise; on a bad week, my mind latches onto more mundane matters, like why the drummer is behind Plexiglas and how difficult it must be to clap while holding a microphone.
Notwithstanding my own deficits, however, in many of today’s churches the worship at its core is a performance, much like a weekly concert. And as much as the musicians on a Sunday morning would demur, a performance demands some appreciation for the talent and hard work of the performers. They are performing, after all. They are on stage with elaborate backdrops, sophisticated lighting, and at my church, sometimes even dancers. We have come a long way from the little old lady behind an organ.
For many, this high-energy show draws their hearts into deeper communion with God. As deep calls to deep, they bond emotionally with the music and are carried into a joyful fellowship with the Creator. For me, however, that same music unsettles my spirit and turns my focus away from God to the musicians themselves and the performance.
On the other hand, the best part of the Sunday service for me is the teaching. The head pastor himself is the primary reason we attend the church we do. He is wise, learned, humble, and a great teacher. I never leave his teaching without a fresh insight into the Word and a renewed commitment to obedience and love for the Lord.
But appreciating a teaching is not the same as worship. I longed to worship. Corporately. I was longing to forget myself and other people – the fellowship, the musicians, even the teacher. I was longing to go to church with others, to be there with others, but still be focused on God. I wanted to tell God how much I love and adore Him with other people who are telling Him the same thing, but to not have to focus on those other people. Only focus on Him.
In an artful effort to sidestep the problem, I embarked on a new project: I decided to spend a number of weeks visiting some of the historic cathedrals in the Detroit area. I would indulge in an interesting and cultural experience; I would broaden my horizons with the unexplored grandeur and history right in my own backyard.
As it worked out, I ended up returning week after week to the first cathedral I visited. I had become captivated with something completely different than the beauty of the building: I had become captivated with the Catholic mass itself.
After much internet research, the cathedral I visited was The Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church, in downtown Detroit. The wilting paint and crumbling spires of the old cathedral suggested a faded glory. The massive wooden doors were an impressive curiosity. But as I walked through them, I entered another world.
A cool stillness embraced me. A reverence imbued into the very air summoned me to silence, both in voice and in spirit. Two angels in billowing robes stood at the entrance to the nave blowing soundless trumpets in welcome as I beheld the Gothic beauty before me. Enormous stained-glass windows bedecked the walls. Intricate patterns of rib vaulting emblazoned with gold leaf soared overhead creating a heavenly canopy. Majestic columns lined the nave in military precision like soldiers in the throne room of a king, directing my vision to the crowning climax of all this glory, the elaborate altar. As I slipped into a pew, something that had been knotted in the depths of my being began to loosen, and then strangely, almost tremble in quiet contentment.
I had seen beautiful cathedrals before, and the experience always left me with a dull ache, like a little girl peering through a shop window at a toy she couldn’t have: so pretty, so close, but not hers. That day, however, I had not come as a tourist, but as a participant. That day, I possessed it.
In truth, I was a pretender. I was a child sneaking into the dinner table of another family, not quite knowing the etiquette and hoping not to be noticed. I bungled through the mass, taking my cues from other parishioners for when to stand, when to kneel, where to turn in the missal to find the right words to say, never quite getting the timing of the sign of the cross (although I did know enough not to take communion without being Catholic). Regardless of these difficulties, however, I realized I had found what I was looking for. This is what I had been longing for but not finding in my own evangelical service.
I longed to stand with others and recite the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth…” I longed to sing songs without clapping my hands or swaying to the music – hymns and chants with little popular appeal, simple songs of adoration. I longed to hear the Word read with no embellishment: Psalms, the Gospel, the Old Testament, an Epistle. I longed to worship God in ritualized simplicity, without emotionalism, to allow His Word and His Spirit to wash over me. I wanted to participate in telling God how much I loved Him, not by struggling to sing songs that I had no hope of making resemble music, but by reciting words of worship and love to God with other believers. “Thanks be to God.” “The Word of the Lord.” An Alleluia chant.
All this I found when I visited the Catholic cathedral, and more.
I loved the formality surrounding the Gospel reading. The priest went to a special, elevated place in the nave, up a handful of steps that spiraled around a column to a lighted platform, the altar boy following him swinging incense. I loved that we sang as the priest made his way to the platform, and I loved that we stood during the reading -- all in honor of the extra-special nature of the life of Christ.
I loved the priestly garb, which seemed to deemphasize the priest himself. His robes, like a uniform, spoke to his function, not his personhood. His choice of style was not there to give me any clues about him as a personality. In this role, indeed, he wasn’t a personality at all. The congregation was not there because of his magnetism or charm. He was not the main event or the center of attention. He was only a facilitator of this communal celebration, almost invisible. I was there to worship God, not to judge the performance of the speaker or my connection with him.
I loved the ritual and the constancy of the mass. Week after week, each element of the mass happened in exactly the same order with no fanfare. Far from becoming boring or mechanical, I found this regularity to be liberating. There were no surprises to engage my mind, to invite my curiosity, or to pique my interest. I was free to focus on the reason I had come in the first place – to engage in adoration and celebration of God. Rather than being required to focus on the act of worship, I was free to focus on the object of worship.
All this to say, the Catholic mass filled a hole in this evangelical heart. It satisfied a hunger for worship that I had not found anywhere else.
I must admit, it was eye-opening to leave my native evangelical soil and venture into the foreign land of the Catholic mass. I do not presume to bridge the 500-year gap between Catholicism and Protestantism with my humble experience, nor would I attempt to scale the mountain of doctrinal differences that stand between them. But I did learn to love and appreciate what we have in common. I also learned that my naive perspective on Catholicism had been clouded by more prejudice than I would like to admit. I was amazed as I sat through the mass week after week that I did not hear anything that offended my tender evangelical sensibilities. The Word of God, the glory of God, and the saving power of Jesus Christ were wholly celebrated and acclaimed, very much like in my own church.
I am sorry I felt sheepish in telling my family and friends that I was attending a Catholic church. Both the Protestant and the Catholic styles of worship have their own wonder and glory. They each make their own peculiar offering in service to the Kingdom. In this secular, post-Christian age, we are all family, pulling together in a tug-of-war for the hearts of our generation. If one man finds Jesus through Catholicism and another finds Him through a nondenominational megachurch, they have both come to the same place through different doors. Jesus is the only way to the Father, but certainly, there is more than one way to Jesus.